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Forging a New Generation of Outdoor Enthusiasts

By Mary Beth Powell on March 18th, 2015

“Everyone must believe in something. I believe I’ll go canoeing.” —Henry David Thoreau.

Numerous barriers discourage outdoor activity, like lack of transportation, safety concerns, and for low-income families, the very real financial burden of paying for admission to a state or national park. That’s why I am especially excited about a new national program, the Every Kid in a Park Initiative that was recently announced by President Obama. Its aim is to help eliminate many of the barriers that stand between kids and their families enjoying our beautiful national parks, waters and lands. Here are the initiative’s components:

  • Beginning this September, every fourth grader in the country will be eligible to receive an “Every Kid in the Park” pass for free admission to all 407 federal lands and waters for the students—and their families—for a full year.
  • The National Park Foundation, a congressionally chartered foundation, or the National Park Service will provide transportation grants for kids to visit national parks and other federal lands and waters.
  • President Obama has also requested new funding in his FY 2016 Budget to help schools and teachers organize school outings to parks for students in low-income areas.
  • As an added incentive, the National Park Service is revising some of its materials for teachers, like lesson plans and field trip guides that make it easier for teachers to turn the outdoors into a learning lab and classroom.

A similar way to increase access to national parks was spearheaded by one of our former Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities grantees in northwest Arkansas, which helped form a partnership between the Buffalo National River, the Ozark National Forest and the Jasper School District. The HIKE! (Healthy Incentives for Kids Enrichment) partnership helped high school youth become more familiar with the natural resources in their own backyard while simultaneously encouraging physical activity. The two federal agencies involved worked to increase park and trail use, while the Healthy Kids, Healthy Ozarks coalition strived to reduce Arkansas’ high childhood obesity rates. All three groups realized that the lack of transportation for youth in rural counties was a major barrier to both groups’ goals. With the help of the Jasper School District, which provided free use of school busses during the summer months, high school youth were able to visit local national parks and forests.

The HIKE! partnership continues to evolve and has expanded from two to five counties. Rebranded as “Explore for Health,” the partnership is now funded through an Active Trails Grant from the National Park Foundation and a local park’s friends group, Buffalo National River Partners. Because of this partnership, residents in a rural, rugged and isolated region of the Ozark Mountains have a new appreciation for the outdoors, particularly the region’s federal lands and vast array of hiking trails.

It’s one thing to ask youth to turn off the television, back away from the computer screen and see what awaits them outside. But without transportation and adult supervision, kids can’t get to these places on their own. Sometimes, with a little creative thinking, encouragement and collaboration, solutions can be found. How can you help foster a new generation of outdoor enthusiasts in your community?

Share your ideas on Twitter at #FindYourPark, and let’s get this spring, and this generation, started outdoors.

Mary Beth Powell

Environmental advocate, and die-hard Carolina basketball fan. Former Senior Project Officer at Healthy Places by Design (then Active Living By Design).